Tuesday, July 09, 2024

How to Beautify Ugly Sacred Spaces When Bureaucracy Is Opposed and Costs Are High

Recently, I was talking to a good priest of a parish saddled with an ugly and liturgically inappropriate concrete church designed in the decades after the Second World War. He told me how difficult it would be to improve the interior.

First, he would have to raise money, which was not easy, but that was the least of his problems. Then, he would have to get the design approved by the diocesan architectural committee, and he was pretty sure they wouldn’t approve anything he and the parish proposed. And third, even assuming he could get past those obstacles, the building was listed as a structure of special architectural interest. (Of interest to whom, one wonders?)

So what can he do? Here’s an idea that might work. Commission a limited number of beautiful portable works of art in carved wooden housings. By commissioning and owning their own beautifully crafted but portable pieces, such as a rude screen, a reredos, or other well-placed images and religious statuary, clergy could reintroduce traditional iconography and sacred artistic elements into these otherwise uninspiring spaces. This not only adds beauty to the space, but also allows for a personal connection to the art, making the space more meaningful and engaging for the congregation.

Rogier van der Weyden, Flemish, 15th century: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
My inspiration for this comes from my observations of the approach of Byzantine Catholic and Orthodox churches in response to having to worship in ugly spaces. When such communities celebrate liturgies in borrowed buildings or churches of other denominations, which is often the case in regions that are traditionally of the Roman Rite, I am always impressed at the way they can transform a badly designed space, or even a space one not originally intended for the Divine Liturgy, into one of beauty. Often, with little more than the basic minimum requirements for the liturgy, such as select icons, candles, embroidered cloths and other liturgical items, these communities seem to be able to turn the blandest antiseptic interior into a place worthy of worship. When the liturgy is over, they pack everything away, ready for next time. 
For example, here is St Elias Melkite Church in northern California, a mission parish without a permanent home which currently rents a barn on a farm south of San Jose. I attended the Divine Liturgy here recently, and my eyes were drawn to the icons and the objects of beauty, which dominate one’s attention, rather than the steel and prefabricated structure. This effect doesn’t seem to come out in the photographs, in which the modern backdrop dominates the visual impact more than in real life. I think this is because the liturgy is a dynamic event, and while it is being celebrated, the eyes are drawn also to the movement and the source of the voices and sounds. 
I am wondering if there isn’t a reason Roman Rite churches couldn’t do something similar. The costs would be less than those involving permanent structural change, and since these are movable personal possessions, rather than permanently installed renovations, no special permissions would be required from the diocese or local historical commissions. 
Further, if the priest himself owns the items and not the church, he can choose to leave them with the parish that is used to them, but if there is a risk of the beautiful art being destroyed or consigned to storage in the basement, his “church-in-a-box” is a simply relocates with him to each new assignment. This would have avoided what happened to the sacred art at the Church of Our Saviour in midtown New York City in 2013: Fr. George Rutler had been a pastor for 12 years and commissioned 31 works by an artist called Ken Woo. When he was reassigned in 2013, the next pastor systematically removed all the art against protests from the parishioners.
If you are looking for artists and design companies capable of meeting such an order, including advising on design and undertaking the carpentry for the housings, here are some suggestions: Martin Earle and the other artists, Jim Blackstone and Aidan Hart and the Chichester Workshop for Liturgical Arts. Their focus is on early Gothic and iconographic styles of art. For a more naturalistic and baroque Catholic approach, you can consider Robert Puschautz of the Stabat Mater Foundation in Tyler, Texas. Both of these studios take on students and apprentices who can be given a formation while working on major commissions. For broader design advice, I suggest Studio Io Liturgical Design
The following are examples from English pre-Reformation churches that could be models for the sort of art that I am talking about. The art could be contemporary versions of these medieval or naturalistic styles. Such objects would be solid enough to have the look of permanent fixtures, but could be portable.
Bramley, Holy Trinity Church, altar reredos
AndyScott, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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